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IDF aims to recruit 500 soldiers with autism by end of 2022

CM 08/11/2021

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After years of exempting youth on the autistic spectrum from military service, the IDF is aiming to draft some 500 such soldiers by the end of next year.
The recruits will join the army as part of the IDF Manpower Directorate’s “Titkadmu” program, whose goal is to incorporate youth with all forms of autism into the military. 
“Today, there are 52 soldiers with autism in the program, and by the end of December we will have 70. By the end of 2022 there will be over 500,” said Cpt. Udi Heller.

As the highest-ranking officer with autism in the IDF, Heller initiated the program which he says gives hope to thousands of teens with autism in Israel.
According to Heller, in recent years there has been an 18% annual increase of those diagnosed with autism in Israel’s education system: 19,500 children were diagnosed with autism in 2019, 27,300 in 2020, and some 32,000 this year. 
And with all those diagnosed with autism in the education system, “there’s no reason why there can’t be 10,000-15,000 soldiers with autism in the army. We want thousands of soldiers with autism to serve in the IDF, it’s not a military of only geniuses,” Heller said.

 FRIENDS AND family say goodbye as soldiers enlist in the IDF at the Tel Hashomer induction center. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) FRIENDS AND family say goodbye as soldiers enlist in the IDF at the Tel Hashomer induction center. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Israel didn’t recognize autism as a medical disorder for years, and the first time a person diagnosed with autism volunteered in the IDF was in 2006. Other than Titkadmu, there are currently some 200 other people with autism who have volunteered through other organizations and programs like Ro’im Rachok (Hebrew for “seeing into the future”) that helps students on the spectrum prepare for military service. 
Titkadmu builds a special track for autistic volunteers who spend six weeks alongside specialized mentors who help them integrate into military life and who accompany them throughout their service. During the six weeks, the mentors also meet with the families of the cadets in order to learn more about them.
“This project begins from their draft notice and throughout their service until they are released including if they stay on for a military career and reserves,” Heller explained. “It allows them to succeed in both the army and in civilian life since they receive three-to-five full years of professional training.”
Many are already excelling in areas that had once been off-limits to those on the spectrum, such as units that require security clearance like Military Intelligence’s Unit 9900, which deals with intelligence-gathering satellites.
“Thanks to this project, a youth who is a genius entered a very unique position that was tailor-made for him in 8200,” Heller said, adding that another high-functioning soldier with autism is currently serving in Military Intelligence’s research division and another volunteer who is not high functioning is currently serving as a technician.
“We know how to give them courses that will give them a future with a profession,” he said. “It’s a revolution.”
With the military having changed its drafting and testing procedures for new recruits, “there’s no reason why they should be volunteering to serve” either, Heller said, explaining that the new changes make it much easier for those on the spectrum to be drafted and placed in appropriate roles.
And as more and more people with autism join the military, many will hopefully become officers.
Some argue that militaries are the wrong environment for those with a disorder, especially those who have extreme social or communication problems. 
While those on the spectrum tend to need more help in some situations and commanders need to be more aware of their needs, “the army can also be very good for them. They can focus on a subject that they like and excel in. They also really like schedules and set routines,” Heller explained.
“There are few countries in the world that allow people with autism to volunteer for the military like Israel. There are other countries that don’t even recognize the spectrum and make them serve just like other people,” Heller said, explaining that forcing those on the spectrum to serve can lead to horrible scenarios including prison and suicide.
It is up to parents to inform government bodies such as the health and education ministries about their child’s diagnosis, something that many parents have tried to hide in order to enable their children to serve in the IDF.
“There is a big negative stigma surrounding autism. And when parents want a ‘normal’ kid, they keep the autism diagnosis at home. And then the kid drafts in the IDF and there are issues while in the army. For those who do report [their child’s autism], there are no issues,” Heller said.
Because of the disorder, many were not able to successfully draft into the IDF even when they tried. And if they were able to draft, many times commanders were the ones who recognized that the soldier is on the spectrum and were able to identify where they are able to best succeed and even excel.
Heller was diagnosed with autism at three years old, but since his parents did not notify the health or education ministries, he was drafted into the IDF like all other 18 year-olds. The beginning of his service was not easy, but he later served under commanders who recognized his potential, he said. 
Now he wants the potential of thousands of other people on the autistic spectrum to reach their potential and succeed in a way that they could have only dreamed of before.
In order to build the tailor-made program, Heller managed to recruit the Planning and Personnel Administration Division in the IDF’s Manpower Directorate and met with leading autism experts, social workers and special-needs teachers.
“This project opens the doors for thousands of people with autism,” Heller said. “Parents write to me that their child now has a future. Military service in the IDF is an ethos, it’s something very important,” he added.
According to Heller, while it was the dream of one man, “it takes a lot of bravery to get this project off the ground, to change the army for those with autism. Not every army or chief-of-staff would do this.”
“There’s discrimination in the community against autism and if there is a way to change the stigma, it is to draft those on the spectrum into the army,” he said. “There’s room for everyone in the IDF.”

Source: Jerusalem Post

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